Chapter 17"Should I put up Lorelei Biljan's posters now? Or wait until after E. J. Putnam's gone?" I looked up from the invoices on my desk. I'd just reread the same line of numbers about five times without comprehending any of it, and I was having only a little better luck parsing Tammi's question. I rubbed my eyes. "Why…would we wait?" She shrugged. "Dunno. Just seems kind of rude to be advertising one author during another one's signing." My mind moved slowly, probably because only 5 percent of it was actually here at the bookstore. The rest of my brainpower attempted to muddle through the disaster that was my life.
"Um…no, it doesn't matter. Put them both up. They're only a week apart, and we want Biljan to get a fair shot at publicity too. Besides, I don't think authors really get worked up over competition like that. They're pretty low-key."
Tammi ran a hand through her short red hair. "I don't know. They're famous and artistic. Seems like that's a bad combination. Temperamental and stuff. Not all writers can be like Seth. In fact, I bet when he gets angry enough about something, he could really let someone have it.""Anything else?" I asked, a sharp note of dismissal in my voice. "Otherwise, just put up all the posters, okay?"
She gave me a startled look and left theoffice.When the door closed, I put my head down on the desk and groaned. Tammi, in her blissful adolescent naïveté, had no idea how close to home she had hit. Like her, I too believed Seth could display a lot of anger if given enough cause.Like, say, his girlfriend cheating on him. True, Bastien had been right in saying Seth and I had loose definitions of "cheating," but even I knew what did and did not qualify. There was no gray area here. No mutability. I had fucked up hard-core.
I'd known it too, lying there in that unholy union with Bastien. After my sleepless night, I'd left him around dawn and took a cab back to Queen Anne, my body still aching. I hadn't wanted to talk to him. He'd slept so heavily, he hadn't heard me leave. No guilt weighed him down.
But me? My cup of guilt was runnething over. Not only that, I still had to make the next decision in this mess: to tell or not to tell? That was what had really bothered me all day at work. The past was over; I could only worry about it for so long. My attention now focused on how to proceed with the future.
Fortunately, Seth had worked from home today, which helped a little. He and I eventually had plans to meet up in the evening, but until that happened, I still had time to come up with something. Anything. Yet when I walked home at the end of my shift, I was no closer to an answer than I had been at the beginning of the day.
Miserable, I pulled up a chair at my kitchen table and sat down with pen and paper. Aubrey jumped up on the table's flat surface and lay down to watch me, half of her sprawling on the page. I slid her off and made the following list:DONT TELL SETH Pros: status quo resumes, he won't be upset Cons: my own gnawing guilt, totally blowing the honesty thing I considered the list for a moment, surprised that neither the pro nor con side had more items. It was just that simple. Moving farther down the paper, I wrote up the reciprocal list. TELL SETH Pros: right thing to do Cons: admitting I'm an idiot, painfully emotional blowout, inevitable breakup, a literal eternity of heart-wrenching sorrow and regret I held the pen and looked back and forth between both lists.
"This isn't really clearing things up, Aubrey." In an effort to relieve my frustration, I hurled the pen somewhere into my living room. She watched it sail off with interest and then darted off to confirm the kill."What do you need to tell Seth?"
"Jesus!" I yelled, practically jumping ten feet in the air. Carter had appeared out of nowhere and now stood beside the table, looking casual and laconic. He wore a black T-shirt over a gray thermal shirt and the same jeans I swear he'd had on for the last couple decades. "Don't do that, okay? Knocking isn't a lost art.""Sorry." He pulled a chair out and straddled it, so his long arms draped lazily over the back. Flipping his stringy blond hair out of the way, he gestured toward my list. "Didn't mean to interrupt." "You're not," I muttered, crumpling up the paper. I tossed that into the living room too, so Aubrey could have more to hunt. "Anything you want to talk about?" he offered.
I hesitated. Of all the people I knew, only Carter had been a steadfast believer in Seth and me having a serious relationship. He was the only one who hadn't treated it as a joke. In some ways, that might have made him a good confidante, yet it also disqualified him. I could not confess to the one person who had believed in me just how seriously I had messed things up in a weak moment."No," I said brusquely. "But I assume you have something to talk about." He eyed me a moment, like he might push me on what I clearly held back, but then he let the matter go. "I have something for you."
He extended a balled fist. When he opened it, I found a small pouch lying on his palm. I picked it up and stroked the material. I had no idea what it was, but the cloth's smooth texture felt like a flower petal. I started to open it."Don't," he warned. His commanding tone instantly made me stop. "You'll break the spell." "What spell?" "The one that masks what's inside the pouch. And the one that masks your immortal signature. " I nodded with understanding. I might not know what to do with my own love life, but immortal conspiracies I could follow. "To hide me and this from Alec's supplier." The angel nodded in return. I held up the pouch and waggled it at him. "So do I get to know what's in there?"
"It's a…" He paused, not from a reluctance to tell me but to search for the right word. "It's a dart, I guess. Or maybe…like, an arrowhead. But that sounds weird. Nah, let's call it a dart. It's only about an inch long. A dart that looks like a small wooden arrowhead.""Um. Okay. Got it. And what do I do with this darting arrowhead thing?" "You pierce the other immortal's heart with it." "Whoa. Like…staking a vampire?"
"Uh, not entirely. You'll sort of have to see when the time comes. The key is to move fast. As soon as you open the pouch, he'll know what you are and what's in there. You don't want to give him time to react because it won't be pretty if he does. Act fast, and don't second-guess yourself.""How is a small piece of wood going to solve all our problems?" "It's special wood," he replied with a grin. "Oh, yeah, that explains everything." "Are you close to meeting him?" "Terribly close, actually. I probably could have met him yesterday if I'd wanted. Alec was very keen on introducing us." Carter frowned, turning this over in his mind. "Hmm. Odd." "Should I be worried?" "No more worried than you already should be at the thought of attacking an immortal." "But I'll be fine if I just act fast and don't overthink it, huh?" "Right. I imagine that's pretty common for you anyway." "Anything else I should know?" "Well…let's see. Yeah. One thing. Don't actually do it until there's provocation." "What?" I stared. "Being a bastard who pushes addictive substances that destroy mortals isn't provocation enough?" "Oddly, no. You have to be threatened in some way."
Annoyed, I tossed the pouch onto the table. This was so typical of Carter and Jerome. A bizarrely complex scheme with ridiculous nuances and loopholes. "Threatened? How can he threaten me? He can't unless…wait, he's not an immortal who could kill me, is he?"
"No, of course not. But he could make things very…uncomfortable for you. Anyway, there's a lot of ways to threaten a person. If he hurts you…or you feel vulnerable…like he could abuse his power over you, then that'll work. He's a stronger immortal than you. Preying on you— especially when you belong to Jerome, so to speak—is a big no-no. You would be justified in protecting yourself. But, if you attack wantonly, you'll get in trouble from the powers that be for targeting other immortals. You'll also get us in trouble for arming you.""This sounds kind of like entrapment." "That's an ugly word. Let's just keep it in terms of self-defense." "So, you think things are going to get rough enough that I'll actually need self-defense?" He hesitated. "I don't know. I just don't know." "Yeah, but then, if this guy's perfectly nice and just sells me a stash of ambrosia, I can't do anything? We've wasted the trip?"
"Like I said, I don't know. Really. But honestly…if they're making it this easy to find him, I have to think something weird is going on. Just be careful, okay?" His face was all seriousness now. "You're smart. You can pull this off.""And I don't suppose, at any point in this, you're going to tell me who this guy actually is?" "I believe ignorance is bliss." I threw my hands up, not knowing what else to say. Carter traded a few more jokes with me and then rose to go. Hesitating, he gave me a curious look. "You sure you don't want to talk? You've obviously got something bugging you. " "I do. But I've got to deal with it on my own." "Fair enough. See ya." An eyeblink later, the angel disappeared. Seth showed up about an hour later, a little blue paint smudged on his face. "Terry and Andrea are painting the kitchen now." I smiled at him, swallowing all the churning emotions within me. "How can you get so messy when you don't even do the painting?"
I found a washcloth and dabbed at his face in a fruitless effort to clean him up. Standing so close, I suddenly had a flashback to last night. His hands stroking my breasts. Feeling him inside of me, filling me up. Our bodies moving together. His lips parting slightly when he came."It won't come off," I said abruptly, jerking away.
"Oh. Okay." I stayed moody and silent for the rest of the night, stiff and distant at any sort of touching. Seth picked up on the vibe right away and let me have my space. We walked a few blocks down the street to a theater that only showed Oscar nominees and artsy, independent films. We saw one of the latter, and I have to admit, it did take my mind off my love life, if only for two hours.
Sitting at an Italian restaurant afterward, I let him draw me into a discussion of the film's merits. It amazed me that my mouth could keep up with the conversation while the rest of me was in an entirely different world.
Over and over, I replayed what had happened last night— and not just the sex part. I analyzed everything, the events that had led up to it. Why had I done it? What had made me give in? Had it really been an altruistic attempt to fix Seth and me by removing the temptation? Had it been an aching desire to take comfort in Bastien? Or, most likely, had it been something selfish on my part? A burning desire to touch what I wasn't supposed to have—not because it might help our relationship, but because I just wanted to do it. I had wanted that pleasure. I had craved his body and simply gave in to the hedonism I longed for. I was a creature of hell, after all. I had observed before that we weren't exactly known for our self-control.Yet none of that changed the fact that it had happened. It had happened, and I had to do something about it. Or…did I?
Seth sat across from me, looking happy and content as we talked. Ignorance really is bliss sometimes. I thought back to the lists. If he never found out, the truth couldn't hurt him. We could go on as we had. The only problem would be that I knew the truth. I had to live with this betrayal, not only of our physical relationship but also of our attempts at honesty and openness. One more entry on the list of dark and nasty secrets I already kept."You with me, Thetis?" he asked suddenly. "Huh?" He gave me a small, sweet smile and moved his hand over to hold mine. I squeezed it back. "You look like you're miles away. " I gave him a half-smile in return. Apparently I wasn't as subtle as I thought. I looked at him, studying those beloved features, and shook my head. I couldn't do it. I couldn't tell him. Not yet. "Just tired," I lied. We shared a dish of gelato and then returned to my apartment. We had just set up the Scrabble board when I felt immortal signatures approaching. I groaned, not wanting to deal with this. "Hail, hail, the gang's all here." Seth looked puzzled until we heard the knock at the door. I opened it, letting in Hugh, Peter, Cody, and Bastien. "You are alive," said Peter cheerfully, smothering me in a hug. "We tried calling you tonight." "And I've been trying to get a hold of you all day," added Bastien pointedly. I was perfectly aware that he had called me many times. I had purposely not answered my phone. "Sorry," I said to all of them.
"Hey, Seth," said Cody, clapping the writer on the back. The vampire and the rest of the immortals spread themselves out around my living room like they lived there. I gave their giggling and careless behavior a withering glance."You guys been barhopping?" "Yup," said Hugh with pride. "You—both of you—could have joined us."
"Fortunately, the night is still young," declared Bastien. He strolled around the living room, arching an appalled eyebrow at the Scrabble board. "When you didn't answer, we decided to come issue an invitation in person.""We're going to go shoot pool," explained Cody happily. "Over at that place in Belltown. You guys should come along." He gave Seth a conspiratorial grin. "Georgina's a wicked pool player." "Thetis is good at everything," Seth murmured automatically. I could tell by his body language he wasn't comfortable with a bunch of drunken immortals in the room. I also knew he didn't want to go out. "Sorry, guys," I told them. "We've already been out. We're staying in." This earned snide remarks and groans of disapproval. "Oh come on," begged Hugh, trying to get Aubrey's attention with a cat toy on a string. She didn't fall for it and hissed at him instead. "We always get better service when you go with us." "Besides," said Bastien nastily. "It doesn't look you're doing anything else exciting. You should be grateful we came along. We're giving you something. Something you couldn't otherwise get."
I remained calm, but I think the others picked up on the sudden tension in the air. "Sorry," I repeated. "We're staying in. You guys can hang out for a little bit, but then I've got to kick you out. We're doing our own thing. ""I wasn't aware you guys did anything at all," muttered Bastien in a voice only I heard. Maybe the vampires too, with their superhuman hearing. "You got anything to drink?" asked Peter, gently nudging me toward being a good hostess. I was still locked in a battle of wills and eye contact with the incubus. "Yeah, I just bought a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice." "Oh," said Cody. "Score."
He and Hugh raided my refrigerator, passing out
bottles of prissy malted beverage to everyone except Seth and me.
We abstained. Lounging around, conversation on silly topics soon
ensued, although Bastien, Seth, and I did not participate. Seth
stayed quiet because he always stayed quiet in such settings.
Bastien and I stayed quiet because we were pissed off at each
I excused myself for the restroom and found Bastien waiting outside the door for me when I finished.
"And so avoiding me is going to fix it? Don't delude yourself. It wasn't a mistake. It was good for you. I helped you. I gave you something you would have never gotten otherwise. You'll remember it for the rest of your life."
"Gee," I said, dripping sarcasm. "How kind of you. Because that's really all there was to it, wasn't there? You only did it to help me. Nothing more. You certainly didn't do it just because you could. Because I was 'beautiful and I was wonderful and you wanted me.' ""Listen to me—"
"No. You listen to me. If I want to avoid you, let me avoid you. Don't show up at my house drunk and try to force your way into a dialogue. It makes you more of an asshole than you'd be otherwise. I don't want to talk to you. Not anytime soon. Maybe not ever.""Forever's a long time." He leaned closer, one hand on my arm. "Don't you think you're overreacting to one fuck? Besides, you can't cut me off. You've got to help me with Dana."
"No," I declared icily. "I do not. You're on your own with that. And if you get sent to Guam, then it's your own fucking fault. Maybe it'll give you some time to think about your relations with women outside of business.""Damn it—" "Georgina?"
We both turned and saw Seth standing in the hallway. Bastien and I were close—too close—but not romantically close. Anyone with half a brain could tell we were locked in a dispute. Our postures radiated it, as did our expressions. The grip Bastien held on my arm was not friendly.
"Are you okay?" Seth asked carefully. His words came out low and measured, but I saw something unfamiliar in his expression. Not anger, but something else kindling in his eyes. He had told me once he chose his battles carefully, and I wondered then what he would do if he thought the incubus was a real threat to me."We're fine," I said. I broke from Bastien's grasp, and he didn't fight it. "Yes," he agreed with a cold smile. "We're fine." He walked past me but stopped when he was even with Seth.
"You should be flattered," Bastien told him. "Most women invoke God during sex, butFleuryells your name. One would have thought you were a deity, considering how many times she paid homage to you last night."He continued on to the living room, and I didn't even stick around to see Seth's reaction. I stormed after Bastien. "Get out," I told him. I looked over at the other immortals. "All of you, get out now."
Peter, Cody, and Hugh stared at me in astonishment. I'd kicked them out a number of times, but none of them had ever heard me use this voice on them. Consequently, they heeded it. They scrambled out the door in under a minute, Bastien shooting me a dark glance as he left.When they were gone, I took a deep breath and turned to Seth. Anger and despair boiled inside of me. "Let me guess. You want to know what he meant." His face was unreadable. "Honestly, I don't know." He suddenly sounded tired. "I don't know if I want to." "Yeah, well, I'll tell you anyway."
The words tore at me while coming out, but I really didn't want to hold onto the secret anymore. Not only because Bastien had given it away but also because I knew I wasn't going to be able to stand having it fester inside of me. It hurt too much. Talking to the incubus had made me realize that.So while I didn't mention the pictures, I told Seth everything else. Everything. When I finished, he didn't say anything. He stared at some nonexistent spot in the air, face blank once more. After a couple of minutes of aching silence, he finally turned back to me. "So. How was I?"